Cell Phones

As mentioned previously, wireless communication and cellphones are becoming increasingly pervasive around the world.

In addition to voice calling, cell phones are becoming a platform for other kinds of information services like text messaging, email, and basic Web browsing. These are all of potential use to activists.

For instance, until relatively recently, home computers in Japan were considered the province of otaku, reclusive obsessive nerds. Cell phones, on the other hand, were extremely popular and were the primary interface of most Japanese users to email and the Web. Most of this interaction continues to take place via cell phone.

Cell phones also have special relevance to countries that lack a reliable telephone infrastructure.

Radio is by far the most dominant mass medium in Africa, and the recent proliferation of independent radio stations and cellular infrastructure in Ghana is already affecting politics. Running up to the December 2000 election, Radio phone-in shows pilloried the hand-picked successor of the outgoing president. During the election itself, voters used cellphones and talk radio to report voting fraud: “Whenever someone at a polling place reported fraud, the called the radio station, which broadcast it; the police had to check it out, not having the excuse that they did not receive a report.” [source] The combinition of new technologies contributed to the end of nearly two decades of one party rule.[source]

Text messaging was used by protesters in 2001 revolution in the Philippines to rapidly coordinate demonstrations that helped topple president Estrada.

During the 2002 presidential election in South Korea, a demographic shift in the population reverberated at the polls, mobilized by electronic media:

In a matter of minutes, more than a million e-mails were sent to mobile phones and online accounts urging supporters to go out and vote. This online rallying cry sent young voters to polling stations nationwide and delivered a narrow 2.3% election victory to the self-proclaimed political outsider Roh [Moo-hyun], who had been summarily rejected by South Korea's conservative media.[source]

Cell phones were used extensively to coordinate autonomous rural social movements in Bolivia in 2003.

In May 2004, Fahamu and a coalition of women’s rights organizations launched the first continent-wide campaign using SMS (Short Message Service) text messages in Africa. The electronic petition campaign urges African governments to ratify the African Union’s Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. Users can sign via their Web site or can via SMS from their mobile phones. Since the launch of the campaign both Nigeria and South Africa have ratified the Protocol.

Mobile phones were used by protesters at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle to coordinate the demonstrations, and outwit the centralized radio system of the police.

Coordinating protest activists via SMS has become a standard tool since the 1999 WTO protest. Text messages were broadcast to activists around the WEF protest and the Republican National Convention in New York City when activists responded in real time to the movements of Republican delegates and police around town.

While Verizon stretched nearly 40,000 miles of cable for the voice over IP network between the arena and media center, activists used voice over IP and a free software PBX to set up an information hotline with live streaming radio for protesters calls.

UK protesters welcomed President Bush with “Chasing Bush,” a media hack adjunct to the organized, legally-sanctioned anti-war march:

Chasing Bush“The Chasing Bush campaign is asking people to ‘disrupt the PR’ of the visit by spoiling stage-managed photos.

They are being encouraged to send location reports and images by mobile to be posted on the Chasing Bush site

‘We are trying to spoil the PR, so we are not doing anything directly, but encouraging people to protest by turning their backs in press photos so they can’t be used.’

The campaign organizers have also asked people to go into protest ‘exclusion zones’ to send SMS updates and on-location reports about his appearances, and events at protests.” [source]

As part of its 2001 campaign on torture, Amnesty International USA launched its FAST network to use cellphones, pagers, and email to increase the response time on its prisoner case work:

As soon as Amnesty International hears about an imminent threat of torture, FAST instantly sends out an alarm to its network of activists around the globe. Cell phones ring, pagers buzz and computers chime, instructing activists by the thousands to sign electronic letters of protest. Within hours, the threat of torture is exposed. Once exposed, it is nearly impossible to carry out. [source]

In one case, within 24 hours from Amnesty’s initial contact about a case, members had sent 5,000 emails and several hundred faxes to local prison commander in Central America. The detainee in question was promptly released. Still, 2001 may have been early for this particular form of cell phone use, though the technical aspect received considerable media attention; only a few hundred people signed up to be contacted via cell phone.

Last modified on January 19, 2006 03:32 PM

Additional Resources


Thanks for a good synopsis of this topic. It's one that I'm especially interested in, as I'm researching the use of cell phones in political demonstrations for my master's degree. I've posted my preliminary research proposal on my website (www.sfu.ca/~tlavende/) as well as an online questionnaire about the use of cell phones in political actions. Anyone interested is welcome to participate in the survey, which can be found at www.sfu.ca/~tlavende/survey/mobile.html

thank you

Terry Lavender
[email protected]

Posted by: Terry Lavender at March 12, 2005 06:59 PM

Suprised you didn't mention Howard Rheingold's SmartMobs here, which talks a lot about the use of text messaging for immediate, collective action for the public good.

There's more at his blog:

Posted by: Jessie Daniels at April 6, 2005 05:06 PM

good to read that cell phones can be good for us, contrary to recieved opinion that we are all going to die because of electrosmog.

Posted by: Roy Pennington at May 7, 2005 05:59 AM

Hi, thanks for the coverage of our ongoing campaign on women's rights in Africa. We're now providing the digital activism coordination for the African arm of the Global Call to Action against Poverty and we're using SMS messaging again as a tool for mobilisation. Check out our website for more details at http://www.fahamu.org

Posted by: Becky Faith at May 25, 2005 10:01 AM

i am currently working on the use of GSM among rural women in the Niger Delta (Nigeria)if i may ask are you intrested, pls do let me kwon


Posted by: Tiemo, Pereware at March 19, 2006 02:37 PM

I wonder how the NSA would handle it if Americans started making frivolous phone calls as a protest of their illegal spying efforts? Let's see, if just half of the country's 295 million people made 5 extra phone calls a day, that would be an extra 487 million entries in their database everyday. A small effort for quite a bold statement, perhaps.

Posted by: libertyforall at May 15, 2006 11:02 AM